He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22:39-46
Rob Bell, in Drops Like Stars, claims that “suffering unites.”
I disagree. There is nothing intrinsically positive or redemptive about suffering itself.
A long-time physician with the World Health Organization who has been around the world in places of great human suffering once reflected over dinner on the nature of suffering. He said that every time he had watched parents grieving the loss of children to starvation, or persons withering away from AIDS, he had been obliged to admit that he could never fully appreciate their uniquely personal experience of suffering. For as much as he might find reserves of compassion and empathy with which to reach out to such persons with a kind word, he could never fully understand the full intensity or scope of their anguish. For all intensive purposes, they were alone in their suffering.
Suffering dislocates and alienates us from God, others and ourselves.
Jesus’ suffering on the cross begins in a garden on the Mount of Olives. The same place he always comes to pray, only this time it’s different. When he prays, his tears become drops of blood (a scientifically validated expression of how the body can react under extreme duress).
And, only Jesus can undergo the “trial” that is to follow. If the camera were to pan away from Jesus in his anguish and questioning, it would land on a cluster of men so weary from grief that they’ve fallen asleep. Jesus’ most trusted followers, the ones who have broken bread with him, laughed, cried and exchanged hard words with him, are faraway from Jesus in his existential loneliness.
We are, too.
That’s because no one else claiming to be God Himself has ever before or ever after this moment taken it upon himself to die alone for the whole world.
People since the beginning of time have become martyrs for all sorts of principles. Just the other day a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest of the Chinese government’s policies on Tibet. Men and women under repressive regimes like Syria’s government go to their deaths having fought for freedom. Especially altruistic people in Germany’s death camps in World War II gave up their lives to spare others.
But, what would it be like to anticipate that your death would be a parade of all the dark powers of the universe- a climactic showdown between good and evil, with at least a tip of the hat to the reality that evil, death, sin and suffering often at least provisionally, this side of paradise, win? What would it be like to give your body over to this cosmic drama when you knew that you didn’t ultimately have to? That you could walk away from it all and live a comfortable life? What kind of burden would it be to know that the hope, “light” and rescue of the whole world ultimately rested on your shoulders?
Only Jesus knows. Not out of necessity, but because He chooses to. And the great beauty of Jesus’ suffering is that it, in contrast to ours, has the power to unite, transform, redeem and restore. Our suffering unites, transforms, redeems and restores only insofar as it participates in Christ’s suffering.
Sadly, most of us spend too much time “sleeping.”